Can Science Fiction Inspire Technological Independence in Africa?

In September of 2014, during Storymoja Festival in Nairobi, I launched my first collection of speculative short stories, A Killing in the Sun, which features sci-fi, fantasy, and horror genres. A few weeks later, I got an invite to present a paper in Paris, at a workshop title Manufacture/Domestication of the Living in Science Fiction, at Le Cube, Center for Digital Creation. The organizers had chanced upon the book, and were impressed with the stories that tackled manufactured living beings. Below is a version of the talk I gave, last Friday.

In Paris, reading the sci-fi story, Lights on Water

Many African communities are technologically dependent on richer nations. Some governments, like that of Uganda, plan to boost technical capacity by promoting science subjects in schools. Already, there is a private initiative to promote the study of robotics in secondary schools in Uganda, by FundiBots. But critics of these initiatives say they are more or less copy-paste projects, that they simply borrow from research that has happened elsewhere and duplicate it. One such project is the Electronic Vehicle of Makerere University, which critics say was assembled rather than created.

In my opinion, there are two essential factors that could lead to a technological revolution in the continent, and a revolution that could guarantee true independence for many communities. The first is indigenous knowledge, the technologies that have existed in the continent for many centuries. After colonization, and westernization, African sciences were regarded as backward, as redundant and inferior compared to sciences of European origins. This sadly continues today.

Traditional medicine is one of the sciences that have persisted in African communities through the years, withstanding onslaughts of slave trade, colonialism, the invasion of Christianity and Islam, and more recently our own governments and educated elites who still hold the view that traditional medicine is redundant. In Uganda, though herbalists are allowed to operate, they face constant harassment from the government, especially when they claim to have a remedy for sicknesses that Western medicine has failed to cure. We saw this recently in Northern Uganda, when the nodding disease struck, and we've seen it with regard to AIDS. While it's true that some herbalists are quacks out to milk citizens, and that the government is right in trying to protect its people, I believe the government on a whole doesn't treat traditional healers with respect. If they did, and gave them resources to conduct research, maybe we would have already gotten a home-grown cure of AIDS.

The Ugandan government has particularly been harsh on traditional birth attendants. It has banned them from practicing, and it has threatened to imprison those who carry out deliveries. I don't know if anyone has yet been imprisoned for helping a woman deliver. I think it all comes down to money. Reproductive health is a major focus of the donors, and it generates a lot of money for both governments and non-governmental organizations. But the government cannot earn if people are not using their facilities, as is the case in most rural areas, where women prefer traditional midwives to the corrupt and rotten Western-style health facilities. 

I became a stronger advocate for traditional medicine when I learnt that traditional healers in Bunyoro had perfected the science of ceasarean operations to help mothers, long before the missionaries arrived. This was observed in 1879, by a Catholic missionary Robert Felkin, and he wrote about it in a science journal.

Felkin's impression of the c-section he witnessed in pre-colonial Uganda
Now, I know, that knowledge is all but lost, and I'm not advocating for a total return to nativity. I'm not even saying that we should abandon Western technologies completely. What I'm saying is that Africa lacks confidence in itself. It believes that there was nothing before the Europeans came, that we were backward, and that whatever we have came from Europe. And that is the tragedy of many African communities. Indigenous technologies cannot evolve because African scientists think such technologies are inferior. These scientists have ignored to investigate their own brands of physics and chemistry and mathematics, and instead imitate sciences from Europe. They need to believe in their past, in their abilities, they need to believe that things can come out of Africa without the input of richer nations, and that is where science fiction can play a key role.

When I set out to write, I often think of myself as an activist, and I want to provoke people into thinking differently about their own worlds. Take the first story in A Killing in the Sun. It's titled The Leafy Man, and you can read it as a sample on smashwords. It's about genetically modified mosquitoes that run out of control in an African village, creating an apocalypse, but the main protagonist is a traditional healer, and he uses his knowledge of herbal medicine to survive, and to eradicate the mosquito from his village.

I got the idea for it at a time when I was frequently suffering from malaria. Like reproductive health, malaria is another major focus of donors, which makes it a lucrative phenomenon. It has become a big business, like AIDS, and so I've grown to distrust what they tell us about it. Sometime back between 2002 and 2004, I would fall sick almost every month. Each time I went to the clinic, the treatments got more and more expensive. The doctors told me that the parasites were becoming resistant to drugs, so I had to dig deeper into my pockets for stronger drugs. I wasn't earning a lot of money and I thought I would die. But after about two years of frequent sickness, I stopped going to the clinics. I investigated organic ways of keeping healthy, and I changed my diet, and I practiced simple malaria control habits, and for the next many years until last month, (after I moved to a house beside a swamp, and so neighbor a plethora of mosquitoes) I never fell sick from malaria. I almost became certain, like many other Ugandans, that these clinics will diagnose you as having malaria even if you don't have it just so they can make you pay for drugs. (BTW, I went to clinics of good reputation, some of which are agents of multi-national health insurance companies)

Well, during my frequent bouts with malaria, I read an article somewhere about two Indian scientists who were trying to modify the genes of the anopheles mosquito so that it is not able to transmit malaria, and that's when I saw this story. 

The tragedy of we human beings is that we ignore solutions that already exist in nature. One of the biggest criticisms of biotechnology is that it is trying to fix things that are not broken. Why change the genes of the anopheles yet you can simply use already effective methods to control the disease?

The simple answer is that no one can make money out of organic methods. No one can make money out of knowledge that isn't copyrighted.

So when I write stories like The Leafy Man, I'm hoping to inspire readers to stop looking at indigenous knowledge as inferior to modern science and technology. Maybe, such stories will provoke the curiosity of scientists so they can invest in researching about indigenous technologies and see how indigenous technologies can evolve to meet challenges of the modern world.
According to this presentation, you know an alien is good if it has blue eyes
But that brings me to the second item that can boost science and technology in Africa. The president of Uganda is known to despise the arts, he is probably ignorant of role that literature, especially science fiction, has played in provoking scientific curiosity and research. There are plenty of examples of science fiction inspiring scientists in richer nations. There is the tale of Frankenstein which provoked research in the area of manufacturing of living things, and there is the Japanese Astro Boy who inspires scientists in robotics and artificial intelligence.

One question I keep asking myself is why sci-fi did not inspire a technological revolution in Africa. Certainly, the genre is not new to the continent. Only the label is new. Like in any other communities, the stories that have been passed on from generation to generation in African communities have many aspects of science fiction, like that of Luanda Magere, a man who had no flesh, and was made of stone. But why did Luanda Magere not provoke scientific curiosity in manufacturing living beings? Why did African scientists not try to create a man made out of stone? Why did they not want to create new life forms when they grew up on stories that told of mythical but human-like creatures, like ogres and shapeshifters?

Would it be because of strong attachments to religious belief? In Ugandan slang, shaman science is called Afrochem, which is short for African chemistry, and it is an assertion of the alternative sciences employed in what others call magic. But it also relates to the phenomenon where many traditional healers have adopted Western technology, yet still attach spiritual importance to disease, and yet still believe in the power of spirits. I've visited a few of these healers (while making a documentary that I never finished), and witnessed them using modern lab techniques to check for malaria parasites, and then dispensing herbal medicine. Some will send their patients to Western hospitals for a check-up, and once they get the lab results, use traditional medicine and spiritual rituals for the healing process.

Mixing science and religion controlled the thinking of scientists. There are areas they feared to venture into, like that of manufacturing of living things, for they believed this was a preserve of the gods. They left this to nature, and to the supernatural, the ultimate creators of living things.

Today, this correlation of science and religion is largely absent in industrialized nations. I believe the break came about as a result of the spread of organized religion in Europe. When people stopped believing in magic, they put their faith in religion, but then, they started to question religion, and they saw that religion is actually man-made, and so they started to think that God too is man-made. Atheism gave rise to unethical and selfish scientists. Today, scientists do not work for the greater good, nor do they work to improve nature or the living standards of their communities. Instead, they seek to increase profits, and military might, and they work to maintain the ruling systems in power.

Paradoxically, the dominant religion in industrialized countries, Christianity, gave the green light to scientific innovations that put our future at risk. Christianity teaches its believers that God gave human beings dominion over this world, which is bound to perish. It teaches about heaven and hell as being the true home of human beings, and so this home, this world, is temporary, thus it's okay to destroy it. I tackle this theme in the The Healer, the second story in my book, for I believe this kind of thinking has contributed to reckless, scientific adventures in not only creating new life forms, but also creating things that harm the planet.

I love sci-fi for it offers a broad playing field to explore humanity. I want my readers to remember that as we strive to improve our lives with technology, we are children of nature and servants of supernatural forces. Creating unnatural, biological life forms, will lead to our eternal doom.

To end with the topic of my presentation, that is, can sci-fi lead to technological independence in Africa? I believe it can, but the stories that come out have to champion local histories, to glorify indigenous knowledge and technologies, so as to inspire scientists to look within their own communities for solutions to modern problems, rather than to import foreign solutions.

Of recent, there has been a wave towards embracing African science fiction, especially in online communities, but it remains an alien genre to publishers and to the majority of readers of African fictions. This is because African writers are still expected to write about 'realistic things', and to focus on political problems, so there is no room for sci-fi. To many, sci-fi is 'unAfrican', something predominantly European and American. A recent New York Times article (I sadly can't find the link -- oh, here it is, New Wave of African Writers with an Internationalist Bent), mentioned notable writers of African descent, but left out names like Nnedi Okorafor and Sofia Samatar and Lauren Beukes, because they do not fit what the New York Times considers 'African writings'. Even the works of Ben Okri, which are essentially SFF, are labelled 'African Magical Realism', instead of sci-fi.

But times are changing, and the internet makes it possible for the genre to grow. Hopefully, in future, once Afro sci-fi has come of age, we the writers might inspire future generations of scientists and leaders with our creations.

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  1. Science is what works. It is beyond race and culture.

  2. Find the right books:

    *Black Man's Burden* (1961) by Mack Reynolds

    *Border, Breed Nor Birth* (1963) by Mack Reynolds